The competition and the winning of medals was great. Getting to visit new places was fun, too.
But for the 120 boys and girls who made up the Philadelphia-area team — representing Southeastern Pennsylvania’s five counties, as well as parts of South Jersey — the JCC Maccabi Games were about much more than what took place on the playing fields.
They were about establishing friendships with people from across the country and finding out how much they have in common. They also were about getting involved in community projects that will impact the lives of people they’ll never meet and about receiving the kind of history lesson not taught in schools.
Take Hanna Weinstein, the lone local representative in Birmingham, Ala. — one of three Maccabi sites across the country — where she set a Maccabi record in the shotput, in addition to taking home gold in the long jump and 4×100 and 4×200 meter relays. For her, sitting in the same 16th Street Baptist Church where four girls were killed and 22 injured during a 1963 Ku Klux Klan-orchestrated bombing was every bit as memorable.
“We all went into the church and listened to a woman who was at the bombing,” said Hanna, who’ll be starting 10th grade at Moorestown High School. “Then they explained about segregation and its relation to what happened at Nuremberg, and I could see everyone goes through similar things. It was amazing to be in this church and see the artifacts and learn about Martin Luther King and how hard he worked to get equal rights.”
A week later, when the Maccabi Games were divided between Albany, N.Y., and Miami, there were similar experiences. Marching into the opening ceremonies — marked by a tribute to the 11 Israelis killed during the 1972 Olympics in Munich — reminded the athletes of the legacy they’re following.
And when the 93 Philadelphia-area athletes and coaches participated in a Miami “cutting party” — where jeans are cut in patterns the shape of shoe uppers, which are then sewn together with a sole and shipped to foreign countries in need of them — they gained an appreciation of tzedakah. The project was called Sole Hope.
“This is my eighth year coaching, and it was the most eventful one I’ve ever seen the kids participate in,” said Danny Weiss, coach of the boys 14-and-under soccer team, which took the gold. “We saw these videos of kids from Uganda who had nothing, including shoes.
“So I said to my team, ‘These kids are close to your age, and look how lucky you are.’ This year, they did a good job getting the kids more involved. Their goal was to make a thousand pairs of shoes. They were able to reach it.”
In all, the Philadelphia contingent won 23 gold, 20 silver and 23 bronze medals.
Miami saw a major Philadelphia medal haul, led by 16-year-old swimmer Zara Liss with four gold, a silver and three bronze, while 14-year-old teammate Mandy Becker won a gold, four silver and three bronze. Other individual winners included dancers Lilly Blum (silver and bronze) and Jenny Margolis (bronze); Yisroel Rosner (gold and bronze) and Danny Saligman (three bronze) in table tennis; tennis players Garrett Spillerman, Ally Chaiken and Shaina Ginsberg (all silver); and Tori Smith and Jazzy Stone (bronze).
Team-wise, gold went to the boys 14-and-under soccer along with the 16-and-under boys and girls basketball, while the boys 14-and-under baseball team tied for bronze when the game was called off due to rain. The 14-and-under boys basketball team won a silver in the runnerup bracket.
In Albany, where 26 locals participated, golfer Ari Hilibrand won gold and silver, while swimmers Austin Polak (two gold, three silver, three bronze) and Ben Gendron (gold, two silver and three bronze) also excelled.
All paled in comparison to 13-year-old Josh Sultanik, who said his success in the pool with seven gold and five silver won’t be his fondest memory.
“I expected going into the meet just swimming my events and hanging with the kids from Philly,” said Josh, who’ll be starting eighth grade at Bala Cynwyd Middle School. “I didn’t expect to be sitting on the deck with teams from Albany and Buffalo and becoming friends with kids from other cities.”
That delighted his parents.
“I truly didn’t have any expectations other than knowing he’d be part of this Jewish experience,” said his mother, Meryl Sultanik. “Overall, it was just an amazing and worthwhile experience for him.”
That’s what Weiss always tells his players.
“I say to the kids and the parents, ‘Soccer is maybe one-quarter of what they’ll be doing,’” said Weiss, who won a second gold. “It’s a whole experience they’ll really get a sense of when they’re there.”
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